Beach House are a quintessential dream-pop band, they hail from Baltimore and a big part of their sound is their layering of keyboards, mostly vintage organs and string synths. The duo don't seem too fussy about the gear they use, instead relying on old, cheap organs for their beats. A Pitchfork article described their practice space: "Old tour set pieces and at least 20 vintage organs—they call them “grandma organs”—line one half of the large room." They don't talk about gear much in interviews and there are no pictures of the band recording, so it's tough to figure out exactly which keyboards these "grandma organs" are. Although organs are a big part of the Beach House sound, another huge factor that I won't cover as much is their muted drum beats and guitarist Alex Scally's work, which is mostly a clean Fender Strat played with a slide through a lot of reverb. Instead I'll focus on their synth heavy songs to work out what makes that element of their sound so unique.
"We use a four-track for our beats, and a collection of organs we have acquired from various whereabouts. Alex plays a Stratocaster, and I have an old Yamaha keyboard that’s the same age as me."
- The Worlds In Our Heads, An Interview With Beach House
String Machines & Electric Organs
The two main types of keyboards favoured by Victoria Legrand are string machines and electric organs. String machines generally refer to inexpensive keyboards that were an attempt to produce cheap orchestral sounds by using slight delay to create the illusion of multiple sound sources. Although these keyboards failed to truly capture any orchestral accuracy, their lush, warm sound has a distinct character of it's own. To learn more, check out this Brief History by Reverb.com.
Although electric organs can refer to a huge number of instruments, in this context I'm referring to cheaper portable keyboards from the 80s. They're faker sounding than the Hammond organs popular in the 70s and despite the obvious differences in sound, the internal guts of string machines and organs are relatively similar; both sound like cheap yet charming imitations of their real counterparts.
The Yamaha PS-20 is an important part of the Beach House sound, it was even their main touring keyboard (up until 2015), and they would run it through a Line 6 Echo Park delay and Boss Reverb pedal. It has 10 different sounds and a sustain button that gives each note a long release time, perfect for flowing arpeggios.
NC:I read that you guys have a practice space, do you store a lot of vintage gear there?
AS: I wouldn’t call it vintage, it’s just kind of crap gear. All of our stuff combined, if it was burned for insurance money or something, would probably be enough to buy one Fender Rhodes. It literally is just crap we got from thrift stores. All of those old keyboards are mostly from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and there is always one amazing thing on each of them. That’s this personal opinion I have. Every keyboard has one thing on it that is really amazing and completely unique. Even if about 95 percent of the sounds and presets are completely unusable or uncreative, there’s at least one amazing thing.
Chariot was the first song released from new compilation album B-Sides and Rarities, and was recorded in 2015 for the albums Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars. It features a lush chord progression likely recorded from the Yamaha PS-20's Organ 2 sound. The chords are Bb | Eb| F7 | Cm and there is some use of layering to thicken up the sound. Listen below to my PS-20 on it's own, with reverb and delay, and then layered with another synth for thickness and low-end. The layered synth is a string machine plugin from GForce, which I'll go into next.
Space Song is another Beach House tune that uses the PS-20 Organ 2 sound, this time with more layered strings that could've been recorded from any of the obscure thrift store keyboards that Beach House own. GForce Virtual String Machine is full of samples of old string machine keyboards, and it's super easy to use, you can just go through the presets until you find a patch that sounds good. I ended up using Violin Spreader from the Arp Omni and layered that on top of my PS-20 track. I ran both tracks through reverb and delay and added a slowly opening filter to the organ track, just like in the original song.
As you can see, the PS-20 is quite a big part of the Beach House sound. I picked up mine from eBay for about £30, but if you don't have the space to start collecting vintage keyboards then you can use plugins to get similar tones. A good place to start is Arturia Farfisa V or Vox Continental V, both based on legendary combo organs. Here's a quick patch I came up with in Vox Continental V that has a similar vibe to the PS-20 organ, check the bottom of the article to download it!
From 2012's Bloom, Lazuli features an 8-bit sounding synth arpeggio and more lush strings. The arpeggios could have been created with any synth, and I don't want to try to guess which one was used for the recording. You can get the same sound using any synth that features PWM waveforms, I'm using Arturia Prophet-V with the Square waveform and PWM up to 0.75 to get the 8-bit sound. Add some white noise in the Mixer section, turn off keyboard tracking (KBD) in the Filter section and set the ADSR to no sustain and raise the decay / release to just over halfway to get the percussive effect. After that add some reverb, compression and drive to complete the sound. I ran the compression after the reverb to get the reverb tails squished along with the original sound. Listen to the arps with and without effects:
The lush strings that come in after the arps are another great example of Beach House's use of string machines to create a lush, dreamy vibe. I'm using GForce VSM again with the Polymoog samples this time.
Walk In The Park
Again this song features the Yamaha PS-20 Organ 2 sound, this time in more of a percussive setting. It's a great part with sustained chords played by the left hand and chord stabs played with the right. The sustain mode makes this really easy and playing the PS-20 through reverb and delay makes it sound really big.
LIf you listen to the original song on good headphones you can hear some layering, there are two slightly different organ sounds in the left and right channels, the one in the right is mellower and slightly treblier. I imagine this is a case of Victoria recording her part on multiple organs and working out which ones layer together well. Here the PS-20 part here:
Wishes is my personal favourite Beach House song and I had a lot of fun trying to figure it out. The process was similar to that of Space Song, I'm using the PS-20's Harpsichord sound, the Arp Omni patch from VSM and a lo-fi drum beat I quickly put together. The sustain function of the PS-20 makes arpeggio patterns like this really easy to play and the Harpsichord patch sounds nice and bright.
For the drum beat I auditioned a lot of samples from different drum machines and picked the ones that sounded most like the drums in Wishes. I detuned my snare sample and used some vinyl hi-hats. I then ran the whole kit through a Plate setting in Valhalla VintageVerb (the patch is Fat Drums with the mix all the way up to 30%) to make it sound distant but not drowned out in reverb.
To get a similar sounding patch to the PS-20 Harpsichord using software plugins, use just a Sawtooth wave, lower the filter frequency a little and set the envelope with a short attack and long release. I used TAL U-NO-LX, partially because it's one of my go-to synths, and the patch I came up with sounds reasonably close.
Also, if you haven't already then check out the fantastic Wishes music video, which was directed by Eric Wareheim from Tim and Eric.
Thanks for reading! This article took a while to write but I learnt a lot from writing it, if anyone has any more information on Beach House's keyboards then please let me know! Make sure to download the patches and have fun making your own music with them.